Appropriate for Valentine’s Day, the editors of the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, wrote about marriage proposals embedded within scientific publications (1). As scientists are inclined to do, the pros and cons of this strategy were examined.
After some lighthearted exposition the editors go on to ponder heavier issues of surreptitious messages in scientific publication acknowledgements and main contents sections along with offering some examples of authorship credit funny business. The bottom line viewpoint of the Nature editorial board regarding such activities is drawn clearly – potential contributors incubating notions to convey personal messages are admonished to cease and desist immediately.
Outside of acknowledgements sections which generally allow expressions of thanks, dedications/remembrances, etc. by authors, how frequently have personal messages been embedded directly within scientific publications contents? The Nature editors are uncertain how many instances may be present on their pages, but clearly are compelled to proactively ensure the integrity of their products. Perhaps the readership will now scour the journal archives for examples or culprits will come forward to showcase their efforts. Notwithstanding the marriage proposals and whimsy sometimes placed in acknowledgements, it may be important to recognize the scientific enterprise can be frustrating. Perhaps some, or many, scientists disgusted by the trials and tribulations of funding and publishing have devised imaginative ways to strike back.
It will be interesting to see if and how deeply this onion can be peeled. We are talking about highly creative people, so there is a prospect we might be treated to some truly novel, hidden-in-plain-sight messages. Scrutinizing scientific publications for veiled communications may have some unintended ramifications such as energizing conspiracy theory buffs. Could this lead to a History Channel series seeking evidence of a modern obscurantist incarnation of the Illuminati? Maybe we should anticipate a few new items will be added to the instructions for authors.
(1) The Editorial Board. From Proposals to Snarks: The Messages That Scientists Sneak Into Their Papers. Nature, 14 February 2018. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-01876-8